Aaron Williams took over his family’s hog farm in Villisca, Iowa, shortly after finishing college. And while he thought about going down a different career path, he knew the family farm — and the hogs that he had raised since he was a child — was his true calling.
After taking the reigns of the farm from his father Bruce, Aaron became the sixth generation of farmers in the family, a tradition he hopes to pass on to his own children.
For almost 20 years, the Williams’ hog farm has been part of Niman Ranch‘s collective of traditional, humane, and sustainable family farms. Aaron is proud to continue his father’s legacy and work with Niman Ranch. Aaron is also quite passionate, as you will see in our talk below, about farming the right way.
Roam: Talk about growing up on a farm, and what led you back to Villisca after attending college?
Aaron Williams: I’ve spent pretty much my entire life on the farm.
I’m a sixth-generation farmer and my dad was the fifth-generation farmer, so I grew up around the farm. Since I can remember, my grandpa and my dad raised pigs. My first job was cleaning the hog pens, and pitching manure.
When I was about seven or eight-years-old, I had 4-H pigs, so I always had animals I was taking care of all year round. When I got a little bit older, I had three or four different sows that I owned, and I ended up selling their pigs. When I was 12, I actually sold my first pigs to Niman, through my dad. Raising and selling pigs from an early age actually allowed me to pay for two years of college.
I left the farm and went off to college at Iowa State University and got an agricultural business degree. During the first few years of school, I thought I wouldn’t come back home, and if I did, it would be at least four or five years after I graduated.
But I worked three or four different internships through college and at every single one I talked to people that worked there about whether or not they enjoyed what they did. And to be honest, not anyone really enjoyed their careers. That made me realize that I wanted to go home and work on the farm. With farming, I could be an entrepreneur and be my own boss for the rest of my life. It’s a lot of work, but worth it.
Roam: So once you did come home, you got the chance to take over the family farm. What was that like?
Aaron: So, at some point during my senior year, my dad was like, I’m 61, I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and I’m ready to either sell the herd or pass it on to you. I had been thinking that year about coming home, and I said, what’s the point of waiting for five years, I might as well just make this work now.
So I ended up coming back to the farm right after college and took over his herd. At the time, he had about 60 sows, and I just started growing it from there. Now, I’m up to about 200, so it’s been kind of a whirlwind in recent years, but it’s been fun.
Roam: Can you talk about the culture of family farms raising pigs in Iowa and how it has changed over the years?
Aaron: Our area, Page and Montgomery county, was the highest pig populated section of Iowa when my dad started about 35 years ago. And now, I think there are only about a handful of pork producers in our two counties. It’s simply that the whole pork industry has changed over the last fifteen to twenty years.
Everyone used to have sows, and now nobody does. You’ve got a few hog farmers here and there but other than that, the hog industry in our area is non-existent. That’s why it has been so important to work with Niman. Working with them, we’re able to continue our farming business, which is my whole livelihood.
Hog-farming is my full-time job, and without Niman, I wouldn’t be home farming right now. Through the partnership with them, I was able to come home and start my business, continue to grow the farm, and make a life for myself that maybe I can one day pass on to my own kids.
Roam: With Niman, you need to raise pigs to certain standards. That includes no antibiotics, no hormones or artificial growth products, and farms are audited by Niman staff on a regular basis for humane practices, among other rules. Can you talk about what that means to you?
Aaron: I do 100 percent believe that the way we raise pigs is the best way to do it.
The pigs live a better life. I think they taste a lot better.
I can tell the difference when ordering pork chops at the market that comes from a pig farm that doesn’t operate at the same standards as a Niman farm. You know, there is a big difference with them being outdoors, in bedding, and not in confinement. I think it just helps a lot with the taste and the quality. I think the protocols and all the other factors, like pasture-raising, has allowed us to be part of an incredibly good quality product with Niman.
Roam: What are some of the difficulties you face while raising pigs to those high standards?
Aaron: I mean, there are obviously challenges. I think the main one is just labor. I’m out there all day, every day. I’m a one-man band, pretty much, it’s just me and my dad, and it takes a lot of work.
It’s been nice that I’ve been able to utilize the buildings we already have on the farm. And if I do want to build something that is best for the pigs and our approved open-air structures don’t take as much capital as it does to build the structures compared to the commodity farmers.
Early on, working to Niman standards, we ran into issues with the antibiotics. But we’ve been doing this for so long, it’s not as big of a challenge these days. In the first three or four years it was tough, but since then, we’ve upheld the immunity with our sows. People don’t realize that immunity is passed on from those sows to their babies, that’s why the additional time our piglets spend with their mothers is crucial in establishing those immunities which are the very key to their overall health.
I think we do a pretty good job trying to keep our pigs healthy; you’ve got to start from day one and go until they go to be harvested.
Roam: And so where are you now with the farm, and what are you looking forward to?
Aaron: I guess the last three or four years that I’ve been just solely focused on growing my business and my herd. Over that period, all my labor has been utilized completely. In the first few years, I didn’t have as many sows as I could’ve handled. Right now, we’re to that point I want to be.
The biggest thing that gets me out of bed every single day, and that gets me so excited, is that every ounce of energy and every minute of work I spend is seen on the backend for myself. It’s not like you clock in at a job, you collect your paycheck, and you don’t really see what you did.
I really enjoy looking back at the end of the day, seeing what I did, and then thinking that it was a good day.
I think, in the end, the most rewarding part is going to be able to do what my dad did for me. When I’m older, I want to pass on this business to my kid, you know, to be the seventh generation of this family farming operation. I want to get this operation to the point that it will be easily transferable so my kid can continue with the business in the family.